1. Biggest Challenges Related to Pandemic Readiness and Response
The words “challenge” and “change” really define this pandemic. Whether your organization was forced to shut down, had to move operations, or experienced an immediate and perhaps also exponential growth in demand, everyone has been challenged and forced to adapt. Some of our respondents admitted they were not prepared for the magnitude of the business disruption.
“Blindsided is probably the right word,” reported a senior vice president in the retail industry
. “With a large number of stores in multiple countries, we got hit hard. Our online shopping is generating higher revenue as a result of COVID-19, but not having our physical stores open is very debilitating.” While this executive said the company’s senior management team had trained using various crisis scenarios in the past, “something of this magnitude was just not on the radar.” The same is probably true for most leaders in industries such as airlines, entertainment, hospitality, nonprofits, restaurants, tourism, among others.
For a senior executive with a global financial services company
, the speed with which the crisis evolved caught leadership flat-footed. “We had a pandemic response plan in place. But the plan was somewhat outdated, and decisions had to be made quickly.” While this senior manager mentioned that the company is now overcoming many challenges, there are complicated issues on the horizon, including uninsured loan defaults by businesses and consumers that could seriously impact the bottom line.
The president of a U.S. manufacturing company
also pointed out the financial challenges of the pandemic. “Delay of projects and delay of completion of projects,” impact revenue and have “a huge influence on cash flow.” The results are far-reaching and impact operations and employees. “Reduction in hours for hourly people. Salary reductions,” are among some of the actions the company is taking to reduce expenses. Like many, his company is applying for the Paycheck Protection Program, which brings its own challenges. As President and CEO of Catalyst Connection, Petra Mitchell
and her colleagues are watching their own bottom line, while assisting manufacturing companies that are facing financial uncertainty. “We realize that many companies have short term needs that are out of our control (financial resources, business closures, employee furloughs) and are helping to connect them with the experts and each other for the answers they are seeking.”
Ensuring safety has also presented big problems. Who knew, for example, that organizations providing essential services and products would need a stockpile of face masks and hand sanitizer? “The safety of our employees and customers is our biggest priority and a challenge at this time,” wrote a senior manager involved in the car manufacturing industry in Japan
. This manager also stated that some in the industry have pivoted to start producing face masks in their factories. An executive vice president with a U.S.-based manufacturer
mentioned his company has added communication about safety, increased cleaning and disinfection of work areas. They are also taking the temperature of employees to protect them and allay concerns that they might become infected with the virus while on the job.
John Naddeo, Global Director of Systems, Procurement & Process Improvement at Ross International
, shared that the changing rules about safety have required businesses to be nimble. “The biggest challenges have been dealing with various regions and governments who have been constantly changing the rules and guidelines within their respective areas. These decisions have often been made without sufficient warning to adequately prepare and respond to the operational and supply chain/logistical challenges they create.”
One of the most widespread challenges and corresponding change reported by survey respondents has been the need to have employees work from home. “The biggest challenge for our group, from my perspective, was ensuring that the shift from working primarily in an office with the as-needed ability to work remotely to working fully remotely was technologically seamless,” reported Brett Fulesday, Senior Manager, Valuation Services with Cohen & Company
. “Without question, it was seamless [for our company], primarily because our firm had a mindset long before COVID-19 of striving to ensure that employees could work at any time from any location without a loss in performance.”
Takeaway: While pre-crisis planning for a broad range of adversarial events and disruptive situations is always important, identifying potential crises that are nearly unthinkable has always been and will remain very difficult. However, as we do post-mortems on our organizations’ responses to COVID-19, almost no idea should be too off-the-wall, and virtually no fact-based scenario should be too unusual to be considered by management and external advisers. Business practices that seemed unnecessary or overly creative before the pandemic may very well be a part of many organizations’ plans going forward and could turn out to make a big difference.
2. Biggest Surprise About Pandemic Effects
One of the things we were glad to learn was how many respondents said they were surprised by how well their employees responded to the pandemic.
“Our employees are rooting for one another and putting in lots of extra hours,” conveyed a senior manager at an energy company
. “We are all working very hard and with a purpose.” Gregory Timmons, Vice President Legal and General Counsel at Ellwood Group
, also mentioned that he has been impressed by “employees’ resilience and overall team leadership.”
Robert Kramer, President of Rose Plastic USA,
shared that he appreciates how his employees are managing work with the extra stress at home. “Attendance with the exception of mostly school-aged children’s parents has been excellent,” reported Kramer. “They understand the importance of balancing COVID-19 responses with sustaining the business.”
Well-managed employees who are dedicated to their organizations’ survival appear to translate into better productivity and a willingness to adapt to new ways of doing things. Andrew Conte, Director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University
, says that has been the case for his staff. “We previously talked about a lot of different strategies for reaching audiences, and this crisis has forced us to deploy them.” Lee Saville-Iksic, Executive Director of the nonprofit Pittsburgh Youth Chorus,
has been on the job less than a year and was not sure what to expect when the crisis started. “This being an unprecedented event, it was wonderful to know how well everyone would respond, especially our families who have been very flexible as we move instruction to virtual platforms.”
Denise Woernle, Vice President of Communications at Framatome
, commented that she was satisfied with “how quickly we were able to develop processes and tools for managing the crisis.” Catalyst Connection’s Mitchell
has been impressed with the responsiveness of the manufacturers her organization serves, particularly those in critical supply chains. “Many have expanded capacity and capability extremely quickly.”
However, not all the “surprises” our respondents listed were good ones. Fulesday at Cohen & Company
was surprised by the number of service businesses that were not ready for employees having to work remotely. “It indicated to me that while infrastructure is not a 'sexy' topic to discuss or think about, it is essential not just to give it top-of-mind treatment, but also to keep it top-of-mind.”
Takeaway: Empowering employees to make good decisions and show resilience is a wise move because happy, loyal employees who will go the extra mile are critical to resolving problems created by COVID-19. Managing and communicating with employees so they feel like they are part of a team and can trust management are vital objectives. And if your organization was not adequately prepared for this pandemic, leadership should encourage every employee, customer, client, supplier, etc. to keep track of and communicate gaps and weaknesses so individual and organizational learning and change can take place during the response to COVID-19 as well as following the pandemic.
3. How the Pandemic Has Changed the Way Business Is Done
One thing is clear: organizations around the world have changed the way they do business as a result of increased safety measures, quarantines, lockdowns, etc. brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For some, the challenges to physical logistics have been staggering, especially those that belong to “non-office” industries. “Suspensions of drilling and border closures have impacted mining companies and their employees,” reported a manager in the mining services industry in Australia
. “Travel restrictions are hard to deal with. All of these factors impact us in many ways. My colleagues and I are in close contact with our customers. We try to accommodate and change how we are doing business.” The president and CEO of a hospital in the U.S. conveyed that he and his colleagues “increased safety and began planning for a large number of COVID-19 patients weeks ago. Unfortunately, personal protective equipment is now much more expensive or impossible to get. That translates into a financial problem for us.”
An electric utility operations manager in the U.S.
had to figure out how to protect employees’ safety while keeping customers’ lights on and their computers humming during stay-at-home orders. “What utilities provide is usually taken for granted. We are not only dealing with COVID-19, just think about the storms in many states. Now add the virus on top of everything else. It’s tough.” The Executive Director of an organization that represents construction trades
said his industry is still trying to figure out how to operate safely in a world where workers must interact physically. “Social distancing and hygiene are somewhat difficult as each job site is unique.”
Use of new technology – and making sure everyone is prepared to use it – emerged as a major theme in the responses to our survey. If an organization did not use video teleconferencing before, it is very likely to use it now. “Project work with customers has come to a full stop – with minimal exceptions. No travel at all, not even domestically,” reports the president & CEO of an international management consultancy.
His company is handling business through videoconferencing and team calls. “I think for sure we will use teleconferencing far more moving forward than we did in the past,” said the construction trades director
. “Being forced to do it has really shown the time- and cost-saving benefits. It will be quite a while before many will again feel confident to send employees to conferences or large-scale events.” Higher education institutions are facing the same technology challenges. “Closing the campus and mid-semester converting to distance education,” has forced everyone to adapt said Dean Kruckeberg, a professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.
In many cases, the survey respondents reported unexpected efficiencies in operating digitally. For Rene Stolzenburg, Senior Audit Manager and Tax Consultant with Solidaris in Germany
, this was a pleasant surprise. “Audit projects could take place on time but remote and without the personal attendance at the client’s office we thought to be necessary.”
Indeed, some of our respondents have realized cost-savings and experienced more success in offering services digitally that were previously only offered in person. “For instance, we canceled our high school media day, which typically reached about 150 students,” reported Point Park’s Conte.
“Instead, we created a series of virtual media day videos that so far have reached more than 10x that audience.”
Takeaway: It is unlikely that most organizations will simply go back to doing business as usual after the pandemic has been contained. And that is a good thing. What we have learned about new and alternative ways of operating can and should be a permanent part of our business practices going forward. In some cases, these new ways of operating have already created efficiencies and opportunities that we did not foresee and that will not only help our companies survive the pandemic, but will likely also be crucial to enabling individuals and organizations to thrive in the post-COVID-19 world.
4. What Organizations are Doing to Communicate with Stakeholders
Effective communication with internal and external stakeholders is an indispensable component of a successful crisis response. Informational needs across all stakeholder groups are extensive during this pandemic. If they are not met, it can lead to significant problems.
Ensuring all stakeholders are covered in terms of customized communication volume, frequency, and content is something several survey respondents including Tom Beatty, EH&S Analyst with Interstate Chemical Company,
were thinking about. “Employee communication, customer communication, vendor supplier communication,” should be on everyone’s list, he stated.
“My team and I can make all kinds of important decisions. But unless we are fully informed and communication works across the stakeholders, nothing will get done,” observed a financial services executive
. He added, “I rely on a team of talented professionals when it comes to enabling our leaders to be heard by internal and external stakeholders. My top concern is employees. Customers are next in line. We would not exist without them. You want to communicate often and in a precise way.”
Most of the respondents are making heavy use of technology through video conferencing, intranets, and email to stay on top of the ever-changing nature of managing communication in a pandemic. Sheryl Zapcic, Head of Corporate & Market Communications at Voith Group,
is one of them. “We fully utilize all channels – especially for internal – to be sure all employees at field sites, in shops, those who may not have a company email address, have access to the intranet, are working from the same information level which gets tricky sometimes. We have a dedicated internal SharePoint site with all information, procedures, guidelines, policies, etc., which has been a great resource. We also create posters, online training, intranet posts, emails, etc.”
Framatome’s Denise Woernle
also listed specific communication channels and tools when she shared that she and her colleagues “quickly created a daily update delivered via email to employees and an intranet page for all reference material and FAQs. We also have an external page for those who don’t connect to the network regularly. Our CEO either writes or delivers a message via video weekly. We also communicate regularly with customers.”
Rose Plastics’ Kramer
observed that sometimes nothing replaces face-to-face communication. “We are having weekly employee communication meetings to get everyone aligned on a consistent message.”
Nick Watson, a partner at Keystone Law Group in England,
cautioned against over communicating and making sure messages are consistent and crafted for specific and individual audiences. “By contrast, I have observed in some suppliers to me, personally, an unnecessary and unhelpful preoccupation with constant updating and reassurance – mostly by blanket emails which ironically can have the opposite of the desired effect.”
Takeaway: Even if an organization handles the managerial and operational details of its response to the pandemic well, the entire crisis response is bound to fail if communication with internal and external stakeholders is not timely, truthful, consistent, and coordinated. A botched communication response not only leads to stakeholder scrutiny, but it can cause significant physical and emotional harm as well as lasting damage to stakeholder trust, reputation, and the bottom line. Developing, testing, and delivering clear and easy-to-understand messages, enabling and utilizing stakeholder feedback, and monitoring and analyzing relevant traditional and social media content are essential to overcoming challenges posed by COVID-19.
5. How Organizations are Responding to Opportunities
At C4CS®, we tell our clients that crises also present opportunities. We admit that for many professionals it is extremely hard to identify an upside as the COVID-19 pandemic is causing widespread havoc and threatening to wipe out businesses that have been successful for many years. Yet, it is important to remain resilient, be optimistic, and to seek and capitalize on new ways to operate and rebuild. This could mean attracting new business, realizing cost savings or strengthening relationships with employees and other stakeholders.
“New opportunities are the result of new needs and demands as our clients are economically affected by COVID-19 and were forced to change how they do business,” wrote Soldaris’ Stolzenburg.
“For instance, hospitals had to invest in new capacities and postpone elective surgeries to be better prepared for COVID-19.”
Caroline Sapriel, Managing Partner at CS&A in Hong Kong and Belgium,
says her company is taking the opportunity to respond to client demand for new ways to receive services. “We had started moving some of our products to an online version in 2017 and are now working on this and new solutions even more.”
Some respondents also cautioned against being perceived as taking advantage. “We are not proactively selling our services at this point,” reported a senior manager at an international consulting firm.
“We keep close tabs with existing customers, and we are constantly adapting project plans for ongoing projects for a possible relaunch date. We do react to requests of potential customers, but only if the need/request was initiated by them.”
Most of the leaders in our survey reported they will take the opportunity to look inward, making sure they are providing superior service to current clients. “I have tried to anticipate my clients' concerns and suggest avenues for them to explore,” shared Keystone Law Group’s Watson.
“But, in offering advice and assistance at this time, it is important to avoid any misconception of an ulterior motive. One needs to think carefully about what one is offering and how that offer is messaged to avoid being perceived as exploitative. My own approach has been to offer support on a pro-active basis by reaching out to key contacts and making clear that initial advice (and sometimes more) is free of charge. It is vitally important, in this very rare form of crisis that we offer assistance to those who need it, not just to those who can afford it.”
Takeaway: View the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to serve current customers and clients in new ways and at the highest level, and to seek and act quickly to service new customers and clients. “Selling” and responding to customer and client needs in the way you have successfully practiced before this pandemic may no longer be possible or appropriate. Be ready to do business in ways that will reinforce your organization’s mission, vision, and values, as well as its reputation and brand as one that cares and is ready to provide immediate assistance and customized solutions. That is a message that will resonate with clients and potential customers long after the COVID-19 crisis is over.
This article was written by C4CS® Vice President Anne Linaberger. If you have questions regarding the article or our services, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
. We look forward to hearing from you.